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Can Northern Rhône Syrah Survive the Spotlight?

Both Côte-Rôtie and Cornas have entered the spotlight after decades in the shadows. Jon Bonné considers how the rush of fame has affected these regions, and what it signals for the future of northern Rhône syrah.

As I walk along the muted streets of Ampuis, one July afternoon, it’s unnervingly silent, as if I were striding into Agua Caliente in For a Few Dollars MoreThe reason why is clear enough: A digital sign above the local pharmacie reads 41.5 degrees Celsius. 106 Fahrenheit. Côte-Rôtie means “roasted slope,” and the slopes above—like the town itself—are literally roasting.

The heady, fragrant wines of Côte-Rôtie—red syrah with a bit of white viognier often thrown in—have been made from these slopes for a long time, Ampuis’ hillsides yielding wine as far back as Roman times. In the 19th century, Côte-Rôtie could sell for nearly as much as Hermitage, the Rhône’s most famous wine, but it was only in the final years of the 20th century that Côte-Rôtie finally secured its modern fame. In 2005, Rhône expert John Livingstone-Learmonth posited that, of all Rhône wines, it was the one “whose repute has most grown in the past 50 years.”

Here I am about a decade later, melting in Ampuis’ empty streets. Even if it weren’t sweltering, it would be impossible for me to deny that excitement in the region has migrated—specifically about 45 miles south, to the village of Cornas. For a long time, Cornas was known for thick, rustic wines that showed syrah’s unruly side. The wines were deeply mineral and spicy, but also coarsely textured and sometimes marked by off flavors. Yet by 2010, it was clear that this equally sleepy village had become a magnet for wine’s cool-hunters. Cornas had cleaned up its wines enough to just be presentable—at the same moment that Côte-Rôtie seemed to have lost its sparkle, the wines having turned too oaky and obvious.

That shift in taste illuminates the northern Rhône’s challenge. It’s a place that finally navigated a path to fame after a long time in the shadows. But it’s not new or shiny; unlike, say, Spain’s Ribeira Sacra, it can’t rely on excitement of the unknown. And it’s struggling to grasp the sort of momentum that has infused Burgundy or Italy’s Piedmont today. So what, exactly, will its future look like?

A Syrah Star Shot

Not too long ago, both Côte-Rôtie and Cornas, like much of the northern Rhône, were struggling just to survive. Côte-Rôtie hopped on the path to success earlier, although not without missteps. Around 1966, when the appellation had fallen into obscurity, its overseers simultaneously decided to revive quality, but also to expand, notably on the flatlands above its rocky granite and schist terraces. In a way, that made sense; the appellation’s traditional methods, farming vines by hand on slopes as steep as 50 degrees, made for a good story but were a curse financially. But expansion also further diminished whatever repute Côte-Rôtie had earned.

Not everyone believed in this path, especially not Côte-Rôtie’s great promoter, the négociant Etienne Guigal. Guigal and his family wanted to distance themselves from the old ways and did what many French do to fancy up their wines—carefully controlled fermentations, heavy extractions, plenty of new oak—and introduced three top-end cuvées: La Mouline, La Landonne and La Turque, known collectively (and collectibly) as the “La Las.”

It didn’t take long for others to follow, and by the 1990s a cadre had emerged—people like François Villard, Jean-Michel Gérin and Michel Ogier, who similarly sought to make ripe and attention-grabbing wines. Their rise paralleled the end, of sorts, of a traditional style of wines from farmers who’d endured the postwar years. Previously great Côte-Rôtie had been fresher, if occasionally a bit light, and more overtly spicy than fruity; vignerons often fermented grapes with their stems to add both freshness and structure, then aged the wine in old, neutral oak. This approach was embodied in the Gentaz-Dervieux wines of Marius Gentaz, which have acquired a sort of mythical status.

But by the time Gentaz retired in 1993, Côte-Rôtie had become a very different place. Its success came with a price—literally. Côte-Rôtie had always been a small appellation, around 70 hectares in the 1970s, but expansion was inevitable; today it hosts 276 hectares. And that land quickly grew to be prohibitively expensive; at $1.16 million per hectare in 2015 (as costly as Bordeaux’s Pomerol), it’s more than doubled in just six years. In real terms, that means the search for anything new in Côte-Rôtie today is a bit of a fool’s errand.

It’s true that a handful of traditionalists remain, including Pierre Bénétière, Bernard Levet, Stéphane Otheguy, Jean-Michel Stephan and the Jamet brothers (though they split the domaine in 2013 and have rarely been heard from since). But their wines comprise a drop in the bucket. Bénétière, for example, has just three hectares and a postage stamp of a cellar. He endures because Côte-Rôtie still draws admirably high prices, and the rows that go into his best (and most ambitiously priced) wine, Dolium, are surrounded by those for Guigal’s much-desired La Turque.

To the extent there’s a future for Côte-Rôtie, one not defined by wealthy Chinese investors, it’s probably going to be driven by younger winemakers who secure a bit of fruit but devote their energy to wines elsewhere. This includes people like Benoit Roseau, who planted not just syrah but chardonnay on the plateau above Côte-Rotie, harnessing the broader Collines Rhodaniennes appellation surrounding Vienne. (Many of the previous generation’s stars pursued a similar tack; even Guigal’s Côte-Rôtie is bolstered by their enormous production of simpler Côtes du Rhône.)

I finally duck out of the heat, into Bernard Levet’s storefront office opposite the Ampuis church. Many of Levet’s vineyards date almost to the creation of the Côte-Rôtie appellation in 1940, and today the wines are made by his daughter Agnes the way they always were: in large casks and, crucially, with no viognier, as the Levets stick religiously to the locally propagated petite serine cultivar. (“When you have the real syrah, the serine,” Bernard tells me, “you don’t really want to add viognier.”) The Levet wines, always rugged and so savory they’re almost briny, inevitably feel just slightly out of fashion. And that’s why I enjoy them so much: They simply sidestep the cool-hunters.

Agnes volunteers to take me up to the Côte Brune, a precipice so raw that both vines and oak trees grow straight out of the rock. To the west looms the dominating schist hill of Chavaroche, where the Levets grow old vines for their most intense, oily and tannic wine. We fall silent in the punishingly hot stillness of late afternoon, our only company the Guigal and Chapoutier billboards surrounding us. And it occurs to me that, for now, I can’t ask more of Côte-Rôtie than this: to hang onto whatever tradition remains.

Riding High

A couple of days later, I find myself in the passenger seat of Guillaume Gilles’ van, winding up the road that connects the village of Cornas to its most famous parcels, Reynards and Chaillot, then keeps winding into the hills to the west. Each time we pass another parcel of vines, I think we’ve arrived at the top. But we round the bend and there’s farther to ascend—like climbing a pyramid and realizing at each tier that you’re still nowhere near the summit.

Although Gilles only started producing wine in 2007, he had the fortune of apprenticing with Robert Michel, one of Cornas’ great names, who in retirement bequeathed Gilles his cellar and some land. But even if Gilles adopted that old-school mantle, Cornas isn’t a place overly weighted by the past. Hence why we’re headed up to Les Rieux, where, in 2012, he planted vines in weathered granite at the very top of the village, 440 meters up—previously considered too cold and exposed for a vineyard. “Cornas is really interesting,” Gilles tells me, “because you’re seeing three generations living together, and each has its different ideas.”

Cornas’ recent ascension to the apex of wine fashion is, at the least, improbable. While nearby appellations in the Rhône expanded after World War II, especially the adjoining appellation of Saint-Joseph, this sleepy village at the southern end of the northern Rhône remained far from the spotlight, mostly because it was even more difficult to farm than Côte-Rôtie. “Mechanization was just impossible,” says Alberic Mazoyer of Domaine Alain Voge. “You’d need a 4×4 just to bring up stakes and compost.”

Unlike in Côte-Rôtie, prices for Cornas wines couldn’t match the high farming costs. That kept away the négociants that dominated the midcentury Rhône, further sliding Cornas into backwater status—until the 1990s, when the brash Jean-Luc Colombo drew a blip of attention with ostentatiously styled wines in an era that rewarded such things.

But tastes soon shifted to more subtle efforts, from vignerons like Auguste Clape and Thierry Allemand. Allemand, who arrived in 1982 to pursue winemaking in a no-repute town, quickly gained cult status. While his winemaking was old-school (all whole grape clusters, old casks, very little sulfur) the wines found a perfect middle path between the ragged intensity of old Cornas and the fine-boned texture that speaks to Burgundy lovers. The new attention similarly created a fan base for old producers like Michel, Marcel Juge and Noël Verset. By 2010, Cornas had finessed a balancing act—not rustic, but not confected—at just the right moment.

That isn’t to say its current fame comes without tensions. The expansion up into the hills, begun in 1993 by the négociant house Jaboulet, has ignited debate about whether this “new Cornas” is really Cornas. And even in a town of 2,300, factions and divided loyalties are everywhere, perhaps because it’s still not clear just what the world expects in a bottle of Cornas.

Take Matthieu Barret of Domaine du Coulet. He’s a natural-wine darling who farms biodynamically, yet makes wine in an unapologetically fruity style—fully de-stemming his grapes to ensure the wines are more drinkable young; similar to Vincent Paris, another lucky recipient of some of Robert Michel’s vines. Their approach is far different from stoicists like Allemand and Clape, whose wines are considered traditional and strong-willed, although their styles have mellowed. Then come the “new traditionalists”: Gilles, Franck Balthazar and Ludovic Izerable of Domaine Lionnet, who on paper seem to hew to old-fashioned approaches but whose wines seem softer-edged, less cantankerous than the Cornas of the past.

Even though it has incubated a new generation of producers—and avoided dominion by one big name—Cornas hasn’t escaped the force of economics. Despite the new high-elevation plantings, vineyard prices in the past 20 years have jumped to $490,000 from $86,400. Perhaps that’s why “Cornas has become like Cote-Rotie,” Allemand sighs as we sit one day talking in his courtyard, his famously cranky demeanor on full display.

A sense of passed opportunity seems to occupy Allemand these days. He’s wary of both how difficult it has become for new blood to come to Cornas and the potential for the wines to lose the hard-edged reputation that drew him there. To him, at least, the new, more stylish wines (don’t mention Barret in his presence) simply aren’t Cornas. And he is skeptical of how quickly fame has impacted the younger generation.

“I’m getting to the end, physically,” he tells me. “I can’t do it anymore. Maybe he’ll take it on”—he points to a lanky young man, his son Théo, who hops down from a dusty Range Rover filled with female vineyard workers and pops open a beer. Allemand intends to retire on a farm he’s found to the west, in the Haute-Loire town of Chambon-sur-Lignon, where Jews were sheltered during World War II. “That’s why I’m forcing him out into the vines,” Allemand continues, “so he’ll know what to do and not get a big ego.”

I’ve caught Allemand on a bit of an Eeyore day, but his worries resonate. Burgundy has similarly screwy economics, yet it’s full of young winemakers taking over family properties or purchasing fruit. (A few, like the Australian Mark Haisma, also buy grapes in Cornas.) That energy is harder to find in the northern Rhône, perhaps because it’s not clear where that next generation of pioneers can settle. In neighboring Saint-Peray or Saint-Joseph? In a no-man’s-land like Flaviac, south of Valence, where winemakers like Hirotake Ooka, one of Cornas’ naturalist vignerons, have scouted vines? And if fame is transitory in a place like Côte-Rôtie, will it be any different in Cornas?

“It’s important to remain true to yourself,” Allemand tells me by way of a parting thought, “because there are always temptations.”

As I drive back north on the departmental road, passing through dusty villages and stopping for the occasional freight train, I can’t help but wonder if the northern Rhône underscores the problems with the fickle cycles of taste that pervade wine today. The world fell in love with this once-poor region and shoved it into the spotlight. But once fame arrives, how do you sustain it when tastes move on?

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